‘Vinyl’ Brings the Volume — and the Drugs — But Not Much Else

In a late-era episode titled “The Crash,” Mad Men briefly devolved into total insanity. Fueled by a mysterious “energy serum” that increasingly looks like speed, the Sterling Cooper crew goes fully batshit for 48 hours, tap dancing and all, until Dick Whitman finds himself back in the whorehouse of his youth. It’s a manic, dreamlike break from the series’ typically elegant structure, throwing caution and even logic to the wind in favor of chasing its own characters’ high.

HBO’s Vinyl is an entire series that feels like that single, wild-card episode: intoxicated, undisciplined, yet insistently gorgeous.

In fact, the series picks up almost exactly where Mad Men left off: August 1973, when medically sanctioned amphetamines have long since given way to cocaine — and heroin, and benzos, and something called “goofballs” — and the rock ‘n’ roll that so baffled Don Draper has long since been monetized by guys like Richie Fenestra, Bobby Cannavale’s hungry upstart turned fat-cat record exec. We meet Richie at what should be his happy ending: ready to offload American Century, his decaying madhouse of a label, onto a German conglomerate, before riding into the Connecticut sunset with a wife who’s Olivia Wilde-gorgeous (because that’s who plays her) and two kids who pair nicely with his Greenwich picket fence.

But no series with the blessing of Mick Jagger himself, let alone co-creator and pilot director Martin Scorsese, is going to let this excess go without a fight. In true Scorsese fashion, we’re going to follow this vicious, corrupt, sometimes captivating man all the way to the (likely bloody) end, with all the showmanship and period detail this premise allows.

Vinyl‘s plot exists to support that premise, so its details are precisely as original and fleshed-out as they need to be — which is not at all. Richie’s unwillingness to leave his baby behind is a midlife crisis stripped of any believable catalyst, swapping in a ludicrously tacked-on murder plot featuring an unrecognizable Andrew Dice Clay instead. An HR assistant’s (Juno Temple) drive to get promoted from de facto office drug dealer is a Peggy Olson story stripped of any subtlety. (“You’re a secretary. And you’re a girl!”) And the music scene of 1970s New York, the time in place in the city’s history currently shouldering the heaviest burden of nostalgia, is a setting largely stripped of the sexual and racial dynamics that would otherwise make straight, white, male Richie a poor vessel for exploring it. The treatment of glam rock comes off as particularly unflattering compared to works like Todd Haynes’ elegiac Velvet Goldmine, which mourns a potential revolution Vinyl seems unaware ever happened.

Cannavale has long deserved a starring role, and there are few men better suited to give him one than Scorsese and Terence Winter, who gave him both an Emmy and his best role to date as Boardwalk Empire‘s psychopathic Gyp Rosetti. But that role turns out to be the same toxic, dissatisfied man we’ve come to know and hate so well — the kind with a wife who’s one Factory Girl past away from Betty Draper and a coterie of comic-relief sidekicks who can’t match his brute force, but try to make up for it anyway. (One of the pilot’s many indelible illustrations of #masculinitysofragile is a bowl-cutted Ray Romano snorting cocaine off a spinning record.) Every time a newer, flatter antihero drama comes out, a Low Winter Sun or a Billions, critics like me wishful-think ourselves into believing that this one is the final death rattle. But I’m starting to think the genre’s here to stay, only hardened into as much of a cliché as the cop procedural and increasingly less shameless about pandering to its audience.

About that audience, though: Vinyl is about to be every dad in America’s favorite show, and with fairly good reason. Because while the show may not be particularly interested in structure or characters, it goes all-in — too far, even — with its obvious priorities. With a staggering six-figure music budget per episode, everyone from Lou Reed to Led Zeppelin to Alice Cooper to the New York Dolls gets a spot, plus original material performed by Jagger’s son James as the label’s new, Richard Hell-esque discovery. Vinyl doesn’t restrict itself to rock ‘n’ roll, either; flashbacks and even music videos unconnected to the plot bring in the blues (Bobby “Blue” Bland, Howlin’ Wolf), while an early client Richie deeply screwed over (Ato Essandoh) ends up witnessing the birth of hip hop in the form of a young DJ Kool Herc.

Essandoh’s Lester Grimes hints that a few of Boardwalk Empire‘s signature tics have survived the half-century time jump: an African-American protagonist who’s more interesting than the white one, but still relegated to the sidelines, and an original sin whose karmic impact on the main character is prioritized over its effect on the victim — not to an offensive extent so much as an incidental one, because it’s Nucky, and now Richie, whose face is on all the posters.

Still, it’s easy for Vinyl to push these concerns aside with a crank of the amp, a flash of paisley, and liberally applied slow-motion. This is an incredibly fun show, with production and costume design that pummel the senses into submission. The subways are graffitied; the pants are high as the collars are wide; the houses are filled with Frank Stellas and Andy Warhols — and sometimes Warhol himself, played by John Cameron Mitchell. On a superficial level, Vinyl is one of the most enjoyable shows in recent memory… at least until it slips up and reveals the void beneath, as when the collapse of Greenwich Village’s Mercer Arts Center is reinterpreted as a New York Dolls show gone too far and Richie emerges literally reborn from the ashes of rock ‘n’ roll.

But Vinyl is a show about excess that exists to indulge said excess, and neither its creators nor HBO seem inclined to rein it in before the series gets in its own way, or at least too ludicrous to maintain the fantasy. In the meantime, it’s a fun and absurdly expensive ride. Like the era it (loosely) documents, we can at least enjoy it before it flames out.

Vinyl premieres on Sunday, February 14 at 9pm on HBO.